I once sat next to a shoe guy on a flight between somewhere and somewhere else. This was before the age of earbuds and the iPhone and other intellectual diversions, so we had an actual conversation.
He had been a shoe guy all of his life and now worked for a company that put out duck shoes, those rubber-and-leather half boots for hiking that you'd find in an L.L. Bean catalogue. I had seen some television ads for the shoes, which were big at the time. The ads featured a duck, maybe a father or grandfather to that Aflac Duck of today. The duck stomped around a few puddles in those duck shoes. Didn't worry about getting wet.
"Pretty good, using that duck," I said to the shoe guy. "Saves you some money from signing some famous athletes for endorsements like Nike or Reebok would do. Michael Jordan. Lance Armstrong. Tiger Woods. The duck probably costs you like … nothing."
"Costs nothing," the shoe guy agreed. "Plus he never gets in trouble. No DUIs. No domestic disturbances. No drugs. No problems. None at all. Doesn't say one word you don't want him to say."
This fact was accompanied by a story. In his younger days, the shoe guy said he had been involved with a sneaker company. This was not one of the famous sneaker companies of today; it was a plucky little outfit trying to make a name for itself. The name it chose was Lew Alcindor. The company put all its marketing money into signing the greatest young basketball player on the planet to be the face of its product. The future was secure. The Lew Alcindor sneaker would dominate the market.
"You can guess what happened," the shoe guy said.
Changed his name?
"Always go with the duck," the shoe guy said.
That piece of advice -- always go with the duck -- has stuck with me through the past couple of decades of increasing athletic commercialization. The baby wave of commerce that was starting when the Lew Alcindor sneaker was envisioned and then became bigger when Spike Lee and Mars Blackmon became best friends with Michael Jordan in the early Nineties now has become a full-scale tsunami.
Is there a company in the United States that doesn't want to be associated with athletes and athletics these days? Sports stars tell me what I should eat and drink and drive and wear on my feet. (Shaquille O'Neal, it seems, tells me about all of this, all dimensions of life, all the time.) Stadiums and arenas are named after banks and fruit juice companies and airlines and cellphone services and pet supply stores. Teams and leagues are associated with official hospitals and official hotels and official pizzas and official submarine sandwiches and just about every product you can find in an official supermarket.
I watch it all with great skepticism.
Does this stuff really work? Are there people who actually buy everything Shaquille tells them to buy? (Shaquille beats pain; I'm going to beat pain!) Are there people who put their money in "the official bank of the Dallas Cowboys" simply because it is "the official bank of the Dallas Cowboys." What about "the official bank of the Jacksonville Jaguars"? The Minnesota Wild? The Sacramento Kings? Is there anyone who buys his dog food at Petco because it also is the name of the baseball stadium in San Diego? Or his razors because of the football stadium in Foxborough? What about the people who were dazzled when the baseball stadium in Houston was called Enron Field? Are they all in jail now?
I can understand buying, say, the same shoes as Kobe Bryant when he is riding high and the Los Angeles Lakers are world champions. Works for him, maybe it will work for me. What are you supposed to do when Kobe is writhing on the floor with a sprained ankle and the Lakers are in the tank? Do you stay as far away from those shoes as possible?
Tiger is with Nike! Uh-oh, Tiger is with Nike. Rory McIlroy is with Nike! Uh-oh, Rory McIlroy is with Nike. Lance is with Nike! How closely are sales and performance linked? Are we supposed to notice which tires the winning car used in NASCAR? What about the tires that were used by the cars in that eight-car pile-up? Should we stay away from them? What do we say when Jim Furyk misses a four-foot putt for a championship and his cap advertises 5-hour Energy? Had his five hours run out? Did he need more drink? What about us?
"That strikeout was sponsored by Head and Shoulders," the announcer says now on the nightly broadcast of the Red Sox games.
He says this after every strikeout.
Is this supposed to make me want to buy shampoo?
Hasn't so far.
The latest extension of commercialization came this week when tennis star Maria Sharapova publicly considered changing her name to Maria Sugarpova. This was because she has a personal line of candy called Sugarpova, which she wants to promote. The idea of John McEnroe and Mary Carillo babbling the name "Sugarpova" a few hundred times per match during next week's U.S. Open and The New York Times putting the name in headlines and, hell, all the world talking about 'Sugarpova' apparently was close to irresistible.
Sharapova's advisors, who already have made her the highest paid female athlete endorser in the world, eventually convinced her not to make the change -- too many legal documents would have to be altered, for starters -- but clearly this was a baby step toward the future. How soon will it be when one of our football heroes is named "Johnny Coca-Cola"? Freddie Chevrolet? Jamal Adidas? Bobby Flomax? A. Bayer Asprin? Harry Preparation H?
"That's a double play," my Red Sox announcers will shout. "Flomax to Asprin to Preparation H!"
The irony was that on Wednesday, Sharapova dropped out of the U.S. Open. The cause was bursitis in her right shoulder. If Sharapova had become Sugarpova, the only news at all would have been bad news.
Can excess sugar consumption cause bursitis? Is it safe for Sharapova to eat so much Sugarpova?
There would have been no trouble with the duck.